The Irish Times - Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Wrestling the legend of Sétanta
The playwright Paul Mercier, best-known for English-language work set in Dublin, is a Connemara resident who has always wanted to interpret Irish mythology for the stage. Now he has done so, as Gaeilge
CELEBRITY MEETS POWER, power meets greed, greed meets war . . . and two foster brothers are pitted against each other in combat. If it’s violence, brutality and societal breakdown you’re interested in, look no further than one of our oldest soap operas, one that ends in a final duel north of Ardee, Co Louth, when Cú Chulainn, alias Sétanta, uses a ga bolga, or barbed spear, to disembowel his opponent, Ferdia. An “avante-garde depiction” of the tale and a “theatrical mirror for the political fallouts in contemporary times” is how the Connemara-based Fibín theatre company bills its new work, Sétanta , which is being produced in association with the Abbey Theatre. It opens at the Peacock tonight, following last week’s run at Seanscoil Sailearna, Indreabhán, Co Galway.
The production is Mercier’s first full-length play in the Irish language. Although the Abbey points out that it has a long history of Irish-language theatre, with recent programmes including Aodh Ó Domhnaill’s Idir an Dá Shúil, the last time there was an association on this scale was in 1984 for a production of Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court ), by Brian Merriman, adapted for the stage by Siobhán McKenna.
Darach Ó Tuairisg, the Fibín co-founder and managing director, notes that Irish-language theatre has tended to draw a minuscule percentage of funding from the Arts Council. Companies such as his have relied on grants from Foras na Gaeilge and other funding sources to survive. Undeterred, he and his team have produced more than 20 shows since 2003, touring parts of Europe and Africa with the support of Culture Ireland.
Fibín commissioned Paul Mercier to write the script of Sétanta , with music written by his brother Mel. The multimedia dimension of the production includes explosive visual effects and the use of some 50 masks hand-made by Matthew Guinnane.
Best-known for his body of work with Passion Machine, which has been credited with defining his native Dublin through the decades from the 1980s, Mercier’s most recent venture with the Abbey involved productions of two of his plays, The East Pier and The Passing, in repertory. This particular Dub, however, lives in Carraroe, Co Galway, and has directed the successful TG4 teenage drama Aifric, which he created with Micheál Ó Dómhnaill five years ago. Two years ago, in an initiative known as Gach Áit Eile, Mercier directed three short Irish-language play readings by three writers, Dave Duggan, Celia de Fréine and Aodh Ó Dómhnaill, in three Irish-language dialects; and last year he ran a workshop at the Abbey, Bí ag Scríobh, with Irish-language writers.
For a long time, he has wanted to interpret Irish mythology on stage. In 2006 his English-language play Homeland used Oisín’s legendary return from Tír na nÓg to define a materialistic new Ireland. Sétanta as Gaeilge is a new challenge, one which, in his version, does not stick rigidly to the original story of the young boy with the hurley. Instead, according to Mercier, it focuses on friendship in a contemporary setting and the ultimate “savagery and stupidity” of “betrayal and battle when the glory-hunting by one leads to the death of the other”.
The use of masks gives the production another dimension. “Usually we associate the masks with an ancient art form and a world that is supernatural and fantastic, but this world is ordinary and commonplace. It involves two outlaws in a culture where we tend to hero-worship some of our criminals,” he says. “It is a story of abuse of position, and of how the power of capitalism can lead to violence where certain people benefit.”
The way the Sétanta legend has been told and retold is a story in itself, Mercier says, citing its resurrection during the Celtic Revival of the early 20th century, its impact on Lady Gregory and Yeats, and the Cú Chulainn depiction associated with blood sacrifice during and after the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966.
“We had the children’s version, we had the GAA taking the hurling motif, we had Flann O’Brien taking the piss out of all that mythology after we had a binge of it,” he says. “And then Thomas Kinsella came out with The Táin, and this time there were no political connections.”
Kinsella’s translation, published in 1969, was illustrated by Louis le Brocquy. Another modern poet, Ciarán Carson, published his version in 2007. These new versions relate the myth in all its raw, honest savagery. As the author and broadcaster Dermot Somers has written in Endurance: Heroic Journeys in Ireland , the Táin Bó Cúailgne, or Cattle Raid of Cooley, “runs far deeper than a domestic squabble” and represents an account of the conflict between the early provinces and tribes of Ireland that sundered the nation nearly 2,000 years ago, long before other colonisers.
While myth paints the characters as heroes, the actual warriors, according to Somers, would have been “a straggling mass of tribesmen, dressed in motley wool and rawhide, ill-disciplined and crudely armed”. The brown bull of Cooley was an “elite symbol”, he writes, for the real targets of the men of Ireland as they raided Ulster for cattle, women and slaves.
The famous duel between the childhood friends Cú Chulainn and Ferdia was a later addition to the saga. It was on the fourth day of combat, after they had nursed each other’s wounds on each of the previous nights, that the Cú Chulainn used his ga bolga to rip open his opponent. Ferdia’s body had to be butchered to extract a weapon that opened out into 30 points.
“Our legends have universal appeal, and the messages are universal,” Mercier says. “I find it ironic that Camelot could be shot in Wicklow, and yet we haven’t fully represented our own myths, as if we were almost afraid of them. Sétanta is about universal moments, savagery between two men in close combat, and the price we sometimes pay for the things we do. This interpretation should be able to stand on its own merit, without a prior knowledge of the story, just as West Side Story is based on, but doesn’t depend on, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.”
It should also be suitable for students from transition year up to Leaving Cert, Mercier says. “I’m not a native Irish speaker, but with the Irish I do have I find there’s a different feel to this.
“It’s natural, just as natural as a Chinese play staged in Mandarin, which could lose something in translation. And when the Irish language steps outside of the Gaeltacht, this is where it can really live.”